New Cretaceous Duck-Billed Dinosaur – Was it a Trumpeter?

A multi-national team of scientists from the University of Utah, the Museo del Desierto in Saltillo in Mexico and the Royal Tyrrell Museum from Alberta, Canada have published a description of a new dinosaur species, the first, truly “Mexican Dinosaur” to be described,  in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Velafrons coahuilensis

This new dinosaur has been named Velafrons coahuilensis, a hadrosaur and a probable member of the lambeosaurine group of crested duck-bills.  The very long, extended nasal passages have led scientists to speculate that this animal could have made loud, trumpeting calls.  Much work has already been carried out on the complex nasal passages of lambeosaurine hadrosaurs, the ones with the flamboyant crests.

These large herbivorous dinosaurs may have lived in vast herds and the crests could have been used to distinguish males from females, identify social status in the herd and for display by males (scientists believe the males of many lambeosaurines like Parasaurolophus and Corythosaurus had bigger crests than females).

Duck-billed Dinosaur

The new dinosaur dates from around 72 million years ago (Maastrichtian faunal stage) and although much is known about the dinosaur based ecosystems of parts of the Americas from this time, little is known about the flora and fauna of Mexico.  Sea levels were high during the Late Cretaceous and the sea flooded much of north America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic circle.  Much of the continent of north America we know today was covered by a warm, shallow sea.  The sea separated two areas of land, a narrow strip to the west called Laramidia  and the larger area of land to the east known as Appalachia.

This new specimen has been removed from sediments that were formed where an estuary washed material out into a shallow bay.  It is hoped that many more dinosaur fossils will be found in the locality.

Had flood events occurred there may be a number of dinosaur bone beds waiting to be discovered, providing more information on Velafrons plus the other animals that shared its habitat at the end of the Cretaceous.  Velafrons means “sailed forehead”, this dinosaur has been named after the unique crest on the beautifully reconstructed skull, that took volunteer Jerry Golden of the University of Utah, two years to piece together from the remains extracted from the extremely hard matrix.

Scientists were struck by this dinosaur’s amazing crest, believing it exemplifies a radical evolutionary departure in the geometry of dinosaur heads. The nose bone moved to the top of the head, extending the nasal passage up the face an emerging above the eyes.  It is the arrangement of the naris and nasal passages that has caused scientists to speculate that this dinosaur could trumpet!

A Juvenile Specimen

The specimen is a 8-metre-long juvenile, so perhaps the skull crest was even more spectacular in fully grown adults, which palaeontologists have estimated could reach lengths of 11 metres or more.

More research is required on the specimen but the quantity of the bones recovered makes scientists confident that they can learn a lot from this dinosaur, that resembled a Corythosaurus “helmet lizard”.

To see a model of Corythosaurus and other dinosaurs: Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal Models.

Palaeontologist Martha Carolina Aguillon made the initial discovery in 1995 in the quarries 27 miles west of Saltillo in north-central Mexico. Like many famous dinosaur finds, she stumbled upon the fossil by accident, noticing tail vertebrae sticking out of the ground as she picked up litter after the visit of a school party.

The hard rock proved difficult to shift, much of the fossil was buried under 3-4 metres of sedimentary rocks, but slowly and surely the fossil was extracted and taken to the University of Utah for further study and restoration.

The team’s efforts were well worthwhile as they have managed to recover 75% of the skeleton.  It is hoped future joint expeditions will be sent to this area in order to explore these sediments and hopefully shed more light on Mexico’s Dinosaurs.  One thing is for certain, if there are as beautiful as Velafrons the scientists will not be disappointed.